Plastic bags ride the currents of the Pacific Ocean and collect in the Mariana Trench; stockpiles of nuclear waste are pumped deep into Earth's outer crust; smoke and smog (a fusion of particulate matter and ozone) settle in above sprawling urban colonies, slowly killing their denizens; spent oxygen canisters join “forever chemicals” on the snows of Everest; and billions of pieces of space debris endlessly fall in Low Earth Orbit, just beyond a thin and rapidly changing breathable atmosphere. So goes the narrative of the Anthropocene, a purportedly new geological epoch demarcated by the planetary effects of human activity.
The symbolic anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966) understood pollution as “matter out of place,” a kind of disorder that necessarily prompts efforts to “organize” the environment. Anthropologists, geographers, and other social scientists have since pushed the conversation forward by inquiring into the materiality of pollution, the toxicity that manifests in situated encounters between bodies and environments, and the co-production of pollution/toxicity—two sides of the same coin, one overflowing boundaries and the other seeping in—through those extended networks of physicochemical, organic, and sociocultural life that constitute local and global political ecologies.
This issue of Environment and Society explores current thinking about pollution and toxicity at the intersection of political ecology, symbolic anthropology, and science and technology studies. The articles address a broad range of scholarly perspectives, theoretical alliances, and methodological and epistemological approaches. They collectively contribute to historical and contemporary framings of pollution and toxicity and to new understandings of their discursive and material co-production, and they outline the stakes of such an analysis for diverse communities of human and nonhuman beings. Authors in this issue address entangled themes such as the materiality of pollution/toxicity, how it is smelled, tasted, felt, experienced, embodied, or symbolized, both in moments of crisis and in daily life. Articles also home in on how and by whom the impacts—material, sociocultural, political, ethical, etc.—of pollution/toxicity are measured or otherwise accounted for technoscientifically, socioculturally, and historically. These accountings mediate governance mechanisms through policies, infrastructures, and ordinary acts of care and containment (sweeping, cleaning, planting, repairing). Finally, authors consider how pollution/toxicity reshapes sociopolitical life.